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What you need to know about the new roadside drug tests

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Five counties are trying new saliva-based tests to detect drugged driving

Starting today, law enforcement in five counties are piloting a new roadside drug test that analyzes saliva swabs for marijuana, opioids, meth, and other drugs above a certain threshold.

“When you say ‘roadside drug testing pilot begins,’ everybody thinks that we're setting up checkpoints and putting swabs in everybody's mouth,” says First Lieutenant Michael Shaw, a spokesperson for the state police. “And that's not the case.”

Think of this like a breathalyzer, Shaw says: Before police can even pull you over, they have to first see evidence of impaired driving, like swerving between lanes or falling asleep at the wheel.

At that point, police will assess the driver for drug symptoms. “A dilated pupil, slurred speech, uh, looking like there might be something wrong with them, illness-wise,” Shaw says.

They’ll then ask the driver to get out of the car. Only troopers and officers who’ve gone through training to become “drug recognition experts” can then administer the new tests.

“The officer’s going to use that oral swab, [but] that’s not admissible in court, either, just part of their building probable cause [to make an arrest for driving under the influence of narcotics].” Shaw says. That swab is then analyzed by a handheld electronic device. And just like a breathalyzer, drivers have the right to refuse the saliva test, Shaw says – but police can get a search warrant to test you.

If the driver is arrested, police will administer a blood test as well, which can be used as court evidence, according to Shaw.

With marijuana, the roadside saliva test detects THC at 25 nanograms per milliliter of saliva. As far as medical marijuana patients go, Shaw says, it’s simple.  

“If you’re a medical marijuana person, and you know it affects you, don’t get behind the wheel,” he says. “If you are taking a strong opiate that your doctor prescribed you for whatever reason, don’t get behind the wheel. And this conversation will never have to take place, where you have law enforcement, or you’ve killed a family of four because your driving has been so impaired from some of the things that are in your bloodstream.”

Attorney Matthew Abel specializes in marijuana cases; his firm is called the Cannabis Counsel. His main concern with the new tests, he says, is that “we don’t know if it’s established to be scientifically reliable.”

“So we’ll have to see how it plays out. I mean, it’s gotten a lot of press, but I don’t know in how much in practice it actually will be used,” Abel says.

Still, he says, marijuana patients shouldn’t be too worried. “If you feel impaired, don’t drive. That applies regardless.” In fact, Abel’s optimistic that the stats from this pilot program will show that marijuana users aren’t a danger on the roads, at least compared with other drugs.

“I don’t think marijuana is going to be the biggest result that’s found from this. People who consume marijuana, tend to be not unsafe drivers. But people who’ve used benzodiazepines or opiates or alcohol, are much more affected.

“I think it’s likely that they will show that. And someone has to be responsible for a traffic violation, in order to be pulled over in the first place,” Abel says. “And we’re hoping there won’t be a lot of marijuana issues in that driving situation.”

The Coalition to Regulate Marijuana like Alcohol, which is campaigning for legalization in Michigan, offered this statement:

“The campaign has zero tolerance when it comes to driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol. We'll be monitoring the results of this pilot program in the hopes that it leads to an accurate and reliable test and rigorous standards for impairment that will help keep our roads safe.”

The pilot program lasts a year, at which point law enforcement gathers the stats from this test run and presents them to lawmakers in Lansing. First Lieutenant Shaw says they chose five counties – Berrien, Delta, Kent, St. Clair and Washtenaw – because “they’ve shown an increase in impaired driving arrests … also the actual number of DRE’s who were available in those counties.” 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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